Monday, April 12, 2021

OCPA column: If state can’t reward education success, don’t punish it

If state can’t reward success, don’t punish it
By Jonathan Small

In the free market, those who provide the best products or services are usually rewarded with greater pay or profit. But in government, the opposite often occurs.

Those who want Oklahoma’s educational outcomes to improve must change that dynamic. Fortunately, the State Board of Education has taken an important step towards achieving that goal.

Charter schools are public schools that operate under a legal agreement with a sponsor. If the charter school fails to live up to the terms of its agreement, it can be shut down. Charter enrollment is also the result of student families’ proactive choice, while traditional school enrollment is a passive process in which students are assigned based on geography. In exchange, the charter is granted certain flexibility in how it operates.

The public-school charter system has worked as hoped. Poor performers have closed, but the best schools have become islands of success. Review the state’s A-F report cards for schools in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and you’ll notice a trend. Nearly all A and B schools are charter schools. Nearly all F schools are traditional public schools. One of Oklahoma’s charter schools is even ranked among the best schools in the United States.

Yet those public charter schools are serving the same basic demographic groups as their lower-performing traditional counterparts.

While charter schools receive state appropriations, the traditional districts that are not educating charter-school students have nonetheless retained the property tax payments allotted for the education of those children.

That has created huge funding disparities.

A national report found per-pupil revenue in the traditional Tulsa Public Schools district was $12,949 in the 2017-18 school year, while Tulsa’s public charter schools received just $7,686 per child, a difference of 41 percent. The Oklahoma Public Charter School Association reports that Oklahoma City Public Schools’ per-pupil expenditure in the 2020 state budget year was $11,185, while at Santa Fe South, an Oklahoma City charter school, the figure was $8,934 per student.

Chris Brewster, president of the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association and superintendent of Santa Fe South Public Schools, has noted that pupils at brick-and-mortar charter schools comprise 5.8 percent of all Oklahoma public-school students, but receive just 2.1 percent of funding—even though most charter students qualify for the free/reduced lunch program.

The Oklahoma Public Charter School Association sued, arguing its students have been wrongfully underfunded for more than 20 years. The State Board of Education voted to settle the suit by guaranteeing that charters receive the local property tax funding designated for those public-school students. In exchange, the association agreed not to seek back payment of prior misallocated funding.

Predictably, the traditional districts that wrongfully profited off charter-school students are now wailing. Policymakers should ignore them.

If state lawmakers cannot provide charter schools funding commiserate with their results, the least they can do is to stop financially penalizing success.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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